Kirk is positive but careful about advances in synthetic biology

By staff writers
May 21, 2010

With scientists making headlines about recent advances in synthetic biology, the Church of Scotland became the first major Christian body to make considered comment on this novel area of research.

In a report to its General Assembly, the Kirk’s Society, Religion and Technology Project concludes that there are significant potential benefits to be had from breakthroughs in this field, but that scientists should carry out research within an appropriate ethical framework.

It also calls for the Church to engage constructively with those seeking to utilise science and technology in a responsible manner.

At a globally-reported press conference yesterday, genomics innovator Craig Venter announced the creation of what he describes as the first synthetic life form.

In a paper published in the respected journal Science, a team of 24 researchers led by Daniel Gibson have outlined the steps they took to synthesise the 1.08 million base pair genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides.

They effectively constructed the genome from four bottles of chemicals, one for each of the four nucleotides that make up DNA.

The synthetic DNA was then "booted up" in a cell to create the first cell controlled completely by an artificially created genome. It is therefore dependent on existing life forms.

Responding to such developments, the authors of the Church of Scotland report acknowledge that from novel forms of biofuels to improved medical interventions, the manipulation of micro-organisms in the ways envisaged by synthetic biology has “the potential to revolutionise much of our lives”.

However, despite some protestations to the contrary, the report argues that synthetic biology does not put humanity on a par with God and that “our creatureliness remains”.

It believes this field of research, which has been styled as “creating life” and “Life, version 2.0”, holds out much promise, but also brings many concerns.

The Rev Ian Galloway, convener of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, said: “In trying to create new life-forms, synthetic biology raises tough questions about what risks we are will[ing] to take with our new knowledge."

He continued: ”I am sure that there will be ways in which this scientific understanding can enhance our quality of life, but it needs to do so in the context of having first grappled with the kinds of hard questions this report poses.”

The report also says that in treating biological organisms as little more than sophisticated machines, synthetic biology seems to reinforce a reductive approach to life and challenges different world-views which do not agree with this particular understanding of life.

But the paper affirms that synthetic biology is a new scientific application which, if used correctly, could revolutionise medicine, transform the primary and secondary sector of industry and offer solutions to energy and environmental problems.

If appropriate legislation and effective control could make sure that all potential risks were eliminated, or at least avoided, there is no compelling reason to stop or ban synthetic biology, it says.

The Kirk report argues that everybody, including the Christian world, could welcome this scientific innovation. It says eliminating human suffering, protecting the environment, promoting general well-being and advancing scientific knowledge using reason and human ingenuity are goals in harmony with Christian understanding.

With the Society, Religion and Technology Project Project celebrating its 40th anniversary earlier this month, the authors of the report say they hope their paper will result in constructive discussion between the churches and the scientific community.


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